Bits, Bytes, Blackboard and the University

Blackboard, Inc. is a massively successful academic technology company. Best known for its learning management system, Blackboard was purchased by a private equity firm in 2011. A new CEO, Jay Bhatt, took the helm in late 2012. Under his leadership Blackboard has been rethinking its mission, products, and strategy.Blackboard

I attended Blackboard World 2014 this July and learned about the new vision. Blackboard is re-imagining its products and services to focus on the learner. It seeks to become a learner-centric organization. The transformation is much deeper than products and internal organization. It is a sea change, a deep redirection for a technology company deeply embedded in K-12 and higher education.

As I listened to Bhatt and others talking about focusing on the learner, I thought of a book I recently finished: Frank McClusksy and Melanie Winter’s The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education. McClusky and Winter’s tome is an expansive exploration of universities. Driving their work is a basic assumption is that the digital university is fundamentally different from the traditional university. Further, they argue that this change is around us, it is becoming increasingly prevalent, and that we are only starting to realize that it is happening.Idea of the Digital UniversityMcClusky and Winter conceptualize the idea of the university through a historical lens and a philosophical lens. Their interest in the dissemination and certification of knowledge, not its discovery or creation. The key tensions that are woven through their analysis are between engagement and isolation. The authors’ preference for an active engaged institution of higher learning is clear. They see little relevance in education for education’s sake.

The authors believe that a learning centered institution can bridge these tensions. Despite their protests and cautions, an enthusiasm for technology directs their work. They are genuinely excited about the increase in available data, the possibility for learning more about what works and what does not. In addition, they sagely note that the “crisis” in education is not a real crisis. Almost all of the changes we are experiencing have been anticipated by many for many years.

The book explores how many of these changes will play out in the operation of digital universities. Faculty governance and management changes. The transformations are internal and external. Traditional accreditation processes, for example, cannot function in the same manner for traditional and digital institutions. McCluskey and Winter’s work also benefits from a thoughtful discussion about the role of faculty.

Two data points does not make a trend, but the authors and Blackboard are right. The turn education should take is to foreground the learner. Without learning, education cannot take place. My perspective, though, is that we can be effective and learner focused without disruptive new technologies. Effective faculty and institutions do it already. The challenge will be making learning focus happen consistently with fewer resources.

David Potash

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